Nation & World

Bullard High valedictorian to be deported

Arthur Mkoyan's 4.0 grade-point average has made him a valedictorian at Bullard High School in Fresno and qualified him to enter one of the state's top universities.

But while his classmates look forward to dorm food and college courses this fall, Arthur Mkoyan may not make it.

He is being deported.

Arthur, 17, and his mother have been ordered out of the country. By late June, they may be headed to Armenia.

Arthur hasn't seen Armenia since he was 2, and he doesn't want to return. The thin, rather shy teenager doesn't speak Armenian and barely understands the language when it's spoken to him.

"Hopefully, I can somehow stay here and continue my studies here," he said. "It would be hard if I go back."

The family fled from the old Soviet Union and has been seeking asylum since 1992. The appeals ran out this year.

He and his mother, who did not want to be identified for fear of losing her job and income she needs, were given an extension to June 20 so Arthur could join his class at the ceremony, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Our goal is to enforce these court orders for deportations," Kice said. But "if they come to us and they fully intend to respect the court order, we will work with them."

Mark Silverman, director of immigration policy at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, said Arthur Mkoyan's case illustrates why Congress should have passed the Dream Act. The act would have allowed students who excelled in school and stayed out of trouble to become permanent residents and attend college or enlist in the military

"There's something very wrong with the immigration laws when our government is deporting our best students," Silverman said.

Rick Oltman, national media director of the Santa Barbara-based Californians for Population Stabilization, sees it differently.

The Dream Act "would take away seats from American students, legal immigrants and foreign students legally here on visas," said Oltman, whose group favors limiting immigration. "There always seem to be some excuse why the law should not be enforced. Everybody should obey the law."

Arthur's father, Ruben Mkoian, ran a general store and worked as a police officer in the then-Soviet Republic of Armenia, where he was threatened by independence supporters as the Soviet Union was breaking up, Arthur's mother said. His store was broken into and the family home was burned down, she said.

Seeking a safer life, Mkoian left for Fresno in December 1991 and soon applied for political asylum. Mkoian, who spells his name differently from his son, chose Fresno because he had a close friend here.

Arthur and his mother spent three years in Russia before joining Mkoian in Fresno in 1995.

Mkoian worked for a carpet business and later as a truck driver. But winning asylum turned out to be difficult. Asylum seekers must prove they would suffer severe persecution if they return to their country.

Mkoian's asylum application, which included his family, ultimately was rejected. He appealed the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which ruled against him in January.

Immigration officers picked up Mkoian, now 46, in April at his Fresno home, according to his family. He is now in a detention center in Arizona.

The officers left behind Arthur, his 12-year-old brother, who is a U.S.-born citizen, and their mother. Arthur and his mother now face deportation; the family plans to take the younger brother as well if forced to leave the country.

Arthur said he thinks it's unfair that he has to return to a country he hasn't seen since he was 2.

He already has been accepted to the University of California at Davis, where he planned to major in chemistry. He would like to become a dentist or a pharmacist.

Bullard High School Principal Glenn Starkweather said he wasn't aware of Arthur's situation but said he had a good academic record. Arthur has just over a 4.0 grade-point average, making him a valedictorian.

"He's obviously a very strong student. I'm proud of him," Starkweather said.

With deportation on the horizon, Silverman said, Arthur has limited options.

Once he is back in Armenia, Arthur could return to the United States on a student visa. Or he could ask a member of Congress to introduce a private bill on his behalf to grant him legal residency, Silverman said.

Arthur contacted Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein for help weeks ago. Feinstein has introduced private bills in the past in an effort to grant legal status to individuals.

Feinstein's office is looking into Arthur's case, said Claire Bowyer, Feinstein's deputy press secretary.

Private bills are rarely introduced and often don't pass, according to Feinstein's office. Once a bill is introduced, deportation is halted. If it passes, the applicant receives a green card. In some cases, the bill allows a parent to obtain legal residency along with the child.

"Arthur Mkoyan represents another reason why Congress needs to pass the Dream Act," Feinstein said in a prepared statement. "It is in our nation's interest to provide talented students the incentive to take this path toward being responsible and law-abiding members of our society."

Arthur hasn't told any of his classmates that he must leave the country. He hopes that somehow he will be able to stay. But the deportation order has added stress to his final weeks of high school.

"I can't really concentrate on my studies. It's hard to focus, [but] I'm still keeping my grade-point average high," Arthur said.

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